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Time for a hydrogen Lindbergh flight

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

(a version of this blog first appeared in my Mooresville Tribune column)

Still hanging in the air is the sensationalism smoke (“Oh, the humanity!”) from the 1937 Hindenburg myth. It’s polluted the true hydrogen story for about 80 years too long.  Maybe  it’s time to clear the air by whistling-up the winds of change that were the “prop wash” from  Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight.

Like Lindbergh’s flight, the Apollo program’s navigating to the moon using hand-wired, pre-printed-circuit computers powered by hydrogen fuel cells was an astonishing act of piloting heroism.

Lindbergh’s inspiring feat won him the coveted $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig, probably with WWI fighter pilots in mind, as a “stimulus to the courageous aviators”.

His flight made commercial transoceanic travel for us all inevitable.

Per Internet references, in 1989, near the end of the Cold War, Russia birthed heavier-than-air hydrogen aviation.  Two years after Ronald Reagan scolded Gorbachev about the Berlin Wall a Soviet Tupelov Tu-155 flew with one of its four engines fueled by liquid hydrogen.

Flying with just one-out-of-four engines on hydrogen might seem the aviation equivalent of training wheels but in Spain, in 2008, Boeing flew a “two-seat, propeller-driven plane” at a field in Ocana. The Spanish pilot was Cecilio Barberán Alonso and he flew using “the right stuff” only: hydrogen. Some day I hope Cecilio’s name will appear in the lists of aviation pioneers along with Charles and Orville and Wilbur.

Back in 2007, Mooresville gave hydrogen aviation a nudge. At our Third International Hydrail Conference we introduced Tarun Huria—an Indian Railways locomotive design professor—to some hydrail pioneers from Italy. On his way to a 2012 hydrail-related Ph.D. from the University of Pisa, Dr. Huria helped design the fuel cell propulsion system used in the European Union’s first hydrogen plane.

Perhaps the most Lindbergh-like flight so far was by Gerard Thevenot who, in 2009, flew the English Channel in a hydrogen fuel cell powered ultra-light aircraft.

You have to give the French bragging rights for many aviation firsts. The first manned flight, a Montgolfier brothers balloon, was in 1783—witnessed by Benjamin Franklin, in Paris on diplomatic business—who observed, “We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.”

Franklin’s “awe and admiration” are all very well but what’s wanted just now is a 21st century visionary like Raymond Orteig to sweeten the pot with a hefty cash prize for the first person to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s US-to-Paris solo flight, this time in a heavier-than-air, propeller-driven, plane—powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Lindbergh’s famous plane was named “The Spirit of Saint Lewis.” I think it would be cool if whoever makes the first hydrogen flight names his bird “The Spirit of Elon Musk”—cocking a snoot at the tech wizard who loves to ridicule “fool cells”.

Seven years ago I suggested that Mooresville’s NASCAR racing heritage could be leveraged into the business of one-off, custom-built, fuel cell sports plane crafting for the likes of Howard Hughes and Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz. (Search: “Hydrogen in the air smells like money”.)  Buckeyes never tire of reminding us Tar Heels that the Wright brothers were from Ohio, not North Carolina. It would be great if a Hydrogen Lindbergh flew to Paris in a plane crafted in the State that boasts “First in Flight” on its license plates. “First in H2 Flight” has a nice ring to it.

Big prizes not only incent heroes like a dare but they also direct the public’s attention to things that can and should be done to get technology across speed-bump impediments. A big enough pot of gold at the end of the runway might be just the thing to stimulate some courageous aviator—a “hydrogen Lindbergh”—to make the historic Paris flight that finally buries the Hindenburg myth under a mountain of real NASA‑scale heroism.

The resulting avalanche of hydrogen technology innovation would mirror the bloom of commercial aviation that followed Charles Lindbergh’s triumph.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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